Using a Personal Property Memorandum With Your Will

A personal property memorandum lets you leave objects to loved ones without updating your will.

By , Attorney · George Mason University Law School

A big part of the will-making process is deciding who will inherit your property. Do you want to leave everything to your spouse, for instance, or do you have lots of little (or not so little) items that you want to give to different beneficiaries?

There are no right or wrong decisions about giving away your property—it's your choice after all. Lots of couples simply leave everything to each other, with their children as alternate beneficiaries. It's also common to leave everything to adult children in equal shares. These methods work well for many people.

But what if you aren't married, don't have children, or just want to give items to different friends and family members? For instance, what if you want your niece to get a painting she's always admired and your cousin to inherit an old family Bible? If your state allows it (more on this below), a personal property memorandum is a great way to handle gifts like these.

What Is a Personal Property Memorandum?

A personal property memorandum is a document that lists who will receive specific personal items—like clothing, furniture, and jewelry—after you die. It's a separate document from your will (but, as discussed below, you need to mention it in your will). You can change a personal property memorandum as many times as you want without needing witnesses or a notary public.

Does Your State Allow a Personal Property Memorandum?

Most, but not all, states allow you to make a legally binding personal property memorandum and incorporate it into your will. These documents are allowed in these states as of November 2023:

Alaska Arizona Arkansas
California Colorado Delaware
Florida Georgia Hawaii
Idaho Indiana Iowa
Kansas Maine Massachusetts
Michigan Minnesota Missouri
Montana Nebraska Nevada
New Jersey New Mexico North Dakota
Oregon South Carolina South Dakota
Tennessee Utah Virginia
Washington Wisconsin Wyoming

In other states, if you make a personal property memorandum, it will have no legal effect. Instead, if you want to give away specific personal property items, you'll need to list them in a will or a trust document.

In the alternative, you could give personal property items to friends and relatives while you're alive to ensure they receive them. But be aware that some people could face gift tax implications for gifts worth more than the annual exclusion amount ($18,000 in 2024).

What Are the Advantages of a Personal Property Memorandum?

It's okay to put specific gifts like a family Bible or painting in your will. But your will can get very long if you have a lot of small gifts to make. And if you want to add another gift, or you change your mind about who gets a small gift, you'll need to redo your will. That's a lot of trouble for a small item.

A Personal Property Memorandum Is Flexible

A personal property memorandum gives you the flexibility of updating your gifts without needing to update your will. Updating a will is complicated. You can't just cross things out and sign the will again. You need to create a new will that revokes the old one, and you must sign it with witnesses.

A personal property memorandum allows you to update your list of gifts any time you want. As long as your will mentions your memorandum, you just need to sign and date the new memorandum and destroy the old one.

A Personal Property Memorandum Can Reduce Family Conflict

Another advantage of a personal property memorandum is that it can help avoid hard feelings among family members. If you simply leave all of your belongings to your children in equal shares, they will have to figure out how to divide everything up.

Dividing property isn't always an easy job, especially if friends or relatives disagree about who should inherit certain items. But, if you're clear about items that might be the subject of a dispute, your loved ones will have straightforward directions to follow and less reason to argue.

What You Can—and Can't—Leave in a Personal Property Memorandum

You can use a personal property memorandum with your will for tangible personal property, which includes:

  • furniture
  • art
  • jewelry, and
  • furniture and household items such as china and silverware.

Before you list a vehicle in your memorandum, make sure your state allows personal property memoranda to distribute vehicles. Some states don't consider vehicles to be personal property, so you'll need to transfer your vehicle through your will or by using other transfer procedures for vehicles.

You can't use a personal property memorandum for real estate, nor you can you use one for intangible property such as:

  • money, including bank accounts
  • IOUs
  • stocks or bonds, or
  • copyrights.

Also, in most states, you can't use a personal property memorandum to leave tangible business property. So, if you have a business that owns office equipment, you can't transfer that equipment through a personal property memorandum.

What Your Will Must Say About the Memorandum

A personal property memorandum isn't legally binding unless you also leave a valid will that specifically refers to it. For example, a will might say:

What the Memorandum Should Look Like

Your memorandum doesn't have to be anything fancy; most of these memos look like lists of items and the names of the people who are to inherit them. You can hand-write the memo, or type it and print it out. A typical memorandum might start out like this:

Some things to keep in mind as you write:

  • Don't include items that you've already specifically left in your will. You don't want the memorandum to contradict your will.
  • Clearly describe items so that they won't be confused with a similar item. Many states' laws require that objects be described "with reasonable certainty." The point is to make it possible for your personal representative (also called an "executor") to identify the objects and distribute them to the right recipients.
  • If there's any reason to think that your personal representative won't know who a beneficiary is, or how to get in touch with a beneficiary, include information that will help, such as the person's mailing address, phone number, email address, and relationship to you.

When you're finished, sign and date the memorandum. Not every state requires a memorandum to be dated, but it's always a good idea. If you end up making more than one memorandum over your lifetime, the latest one will be the one that is followed after your death. (Remember that you don't need witnesses to watch you sign, and you don't need to have your signature notarized.)

Keep the memorandum with your will, in a place where your personal representative will be able to find it easily.

If You Change Your Mind About a Gift

You won't need to consult a lawyer to make changes to your personal property memorandum, even if a lawyer drew up your will and original memorandum. And making a new memorandum—or simply tearing one up without replacing it—doesn't affect your will.

If you want to make changes, don't cross out anything on your existing memorandum. As long as you've referred to your memo generally in your will, you can make a new memorandum, sign and date it, and throw the old one away.

If you're not sure whether to use a personal property memorandum for specific items, consider getting help from an experienced estate planning lawyer in your area.

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